Rural Community Perspectives Needed on Future Infrastructure Spending
The Ontario government is undertaking a consultation to determine how they will invest in roads, bridges, transit and other critical infrastructure outside the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Areas. The consultation is essentially about how to stream the $15 billion the province has earmarked for infrastructure under the Moving Ontario Forward banner. The $15 billion is close to half of the total $31 billion in provincial spending committed for “community infrastructure” over the next 10 years. The other $16 billion is being allocated for transit projects in the GTHA.
You can learn about the consultation and provide your feedback here:
Why Should Rural Stakeholders Pay Attention to This?
The Ontario government has already said it will allocate dedicated funds outside the GTHA based on population. This approach to distributing the funds fairly is a good principle and will help ensure that infrastructure projects for small towns and townships aren’t forgotten or swamped by larger projects in cities such as London, Ottawa, Windsor and so on which may have substantial price tags. We know that many small local municipalities are struggling to maintain the infrastructure they already have.
Apart from this principle, the province still needs to consider the pros and cons of alternative program design options. For example, what are the benefits and drawbacks of a flexible, locally determined model where municipalities receive a transfer of funds and have discretion about which local priorities they use the finances for? Alternatively, what are the benefits and drawbacks of a more targeted model, where funds are allocated to specific envelopes, ensuring they flow to selected priorities such as affordable housing, broadband, community transportation facilities or roads and bridges?
It is worth considering the implications of alternatives. If targets are identified now through stakeholder consultations and become locked in, what would happen with projects that emerge down the road that may not quite fit the priorities set in 2015? For example, this might include tourism/cultural infrastructure, recreation facilities, seniors homes, regional airport redevelopment, or harbour/intermodal facilities if those don’t make the cut now. Perhaps incorporating some pre-set review points in the priorities over the ten years makes sense. However, that might be unnecessary under a locally determined approach.
The structure the province sets up for the investment or transfer program(s) could have significant implications for the financing of certain regional initiatives that could benefit many communities, e.g. the SWIFT ultra-high-speed fibre optic regional broadband network. That initiative has proposed contributions from federal, provincial and local sources – would this funding flow through as a local contribution or potentially take the form of a single provincial contribution? Given this context, the province is inviting regional organizations such as the Eastern Ontario Wardens Caucus and Western Ontario Wardens Caucus to provide their input. Northern stakeholders too may have already identified some regional shared priorities for investment that warrant a collective submission to the consultation.
The input of local municipalities, who may see priorities differently than their upper tier cousins, is just as vital to designing an effective program. Likewise, civil society organizations and non-profit leaders, who themselves are working on community issues such as affordable housing, funding for health facilities, downtown revitalization or collaborative rural transportation systems, have many insights to offer on community infrastructure priorities and we hope they pass on their perspectives to the province.
Finally, the province’s response to the consultation process might also serve to answer some questions regarding what the scope of funding includes or excludes. For example, we are also having a consultation about “community hubs”. Is this also potential community infrastructure? What forms of infrastructure are we talking about here? We note that some provincial infrastructure investments such as 400 series provincial highway improvements and the natural gas expansion program are explicitly excluded from the $15 billion pot under discussion, while others such as forthcoming investment in provincial post-secondary facilities are not explicitly excluded.
All together we think there are enough potential implications that rural stakeholders across the province ought to contribute their thinking on these matters to the provincial policy-makers.
The province is in the midst of holding regional consultation sessions and you can register here: http://news.ontario.ca/medt/en/2015/06/0ntario-launches-regional-consultations-on-infrastructure.html